There’s a flu bug getting passed around
And it’s spreading like fire through the town
There’s a virus holing up inside us
Everyone that I know is coming down

“Charlie” is one of my tabletop RP characters for a superhero game. They’re actually a sentient colony of bacteria impersonating the young doctor that was studying them. Their powers all have to do with healing, although… they can infect people at will with various diseases.

Most life on Earth depends on sunlight, but inside deep caves, darkness reigns. Despite being mostly cut off from the outside world, caves shelter an amazing array of organisms.

The walls of sulfur spring caves are often coated with microbes that scientists wryly call “snottites”—slimy mats of bacteria up to half an inch thick. Instead of using energy from the Sun, as green plants do, these bacteria draw energy from sulfur compounds to make their own food. Snottites can form the foundation of an unusual ecosystem in some caves, where many animals graze on the bacteria colonies as a source of food.

Meet more cave-dwellers in Life at the Limits: Stories of Amazing Species.

Image: Kenneth Ingham/NASA

Is the Komodo Dragon Venomous?

It’s pretty well known that Komodo dragons have a rather unusual hunting technique. The huge lizards bite their prey once, then follow at a safe distance until their unfortunate victim inevitably collapses, finally attacking when the other animal is too weak to fight back. For a long time, this phenomenon was explained by a colony of bacteria that made their home in the Komodo’s mouth, which mixed with their saliva and was transferred into their prey’s bloodstream when they were bitten. What was harmless to the Komodos caused a kind of blood poisoning in their victim that weakened the animal until it finally succumbed to both the disease and the predator. 

At least, that was what was widely believed. Now, however, it has been discovered that it’s not a bacterium doing the harm - it’s the Komodo dragon’s own venom.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia had the opportunity to examine the bodies of two zoo-bred Komodos that both had been put down as a result of terminal illnesses, as well as swab the mouths of several live specimens (which must have been really fun). What they discovered was that most of the microbes in the Komodo’s mouth (and yes, there are plenty) are harmless, and similar to those found in the mouths of many other species. In fact, there were less harmful strains, and less bacteria in general, than exist in the mouths of most predators. 

Next, they discovered the real reason the dragon’s bite is so deadly - two small venom glands located in the lower jaw, ones that had previously gone unnoticed due to their size and unusual placement. An analysis done of the substance found inside showed that it would in fact cause the symptoms seen in bite victims - a rapid drop in blood pressure, expedited blood loss, and an inability to form clots. This actually wasn’t that surprising to Bryan Frye, the lead researcher on the project. Apparently, several other types of lizards were recently proved venomous as well, including multiple other species of monitor lizard (and the iguana).

I suppose this shows why we should double-check scientific studies, as the entire basis for the bacteria theory was one observational study from the 1970′s.